Her stack of newspaper was dwindling, only a few left now. Her pockets and her voice jingled with delight at such a good sell. She almost skipped through the open spaces of the square, moving to each cluster of bartering tradesmen, voices raised in the heat. The sounds mingled into one cacophony of murmurs and shouts, voices intermingling and becoming indistinguishable.
"Sabda! Sabda!" She cried above it all, catching another tourist's attention, money and paper quickly transferring hands before the thieves swooped in like hawks. As she swiftly deposited the clinking coins into her pocket, something caught the corner of her eye. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she casually glanced to her right before turning and walking across the square. Someone was watching her. A man in a white shirt, vaguely familiar.
Terror sank into her heart as her gait gradually picked up speed. She had heard rumors of slavers stopping at these ports and stealing people away, anyone they could get their hands on. They would be beaten and sold on another planet, or simply worked to death in the deepest parts of the ship.
Indali pretended to stop and look at a stall full of jewelry, flicking her eyes over to see if he were still there. He was, pushing his way through the crowd in her direction. She recognized him now. The man from the ship who had asked her to show him around.
She stood frozen while she melted in the waves of heat that rose from the dirt. She had to wait for the right opportunity.
A wrinkled woman held a scrawny chicken up in his face, shouting how delicious it would taste when cooked. The chicken flapped its wings desperately and the man jumped away from it, nearly tripping over a small child who had dashed behind him.
Indali turned and ran, aware of the shrill voice of the child's mother, berating the "clumsy idiot." She dashed around the corner of the stall into a side street.
Indali slowed and glanced over her shoulder. It was her little sister, Kavita, jumping and waving her arms. She looked lost in the crowd, like she was drowning in a wave of people. Indali turned back and shoved some merchants aside to reach her, grabbing her arm and dragging her to an empty corner between barrels of spices and a stone wall, crawling with moss.
"What are you doing here?" Indali hissed. "I told you, if you come to the market alone, the slavers will get you."
"Mama told me," Kavita retorted. "I'm supposed to get you. Mama says the boy has waited long enough and his family needs an extra worker for the harvest, so you're to go as soon as you can get your things from home."
Indali's heart sank like a billow of fog and lingered, low and damp and hopeless. She had gone through the marriage ceremony when she was ten, as all girls did. They said the boy was her age, but Indali thought he looked younger, maybe 14 now. She caught a glimpse of him in the market sometimes, running around with his siblings, playing practical jokes on the ignorant tourists.
To break a marriage vow was shameful.
She had never spoken to him.To live with his family and be his wife... she couldn't. Couldn't even imagine it. His father seemed nice enough, a passive farmer who only cared for his crops, but the boy's mother was mean. Indali had heard that she beat her other marriage-daughters, mysterious green bruises showing up on their arms that they wouldn't explain.
She would rather be taken by slavers than to live with her husband and his mother.
An idea slipped through her mind, formless. It wafted through her conscious thoughts and became tangible. It was stupid and dangerous. It probably wouldn't work. She had to try.
"You go back and tell them I'm coming."
Kavita started to go.
"Wait," Indali said on an impulse. She pulled her little sister into a fierce hug as she squirmed and protested that it was too hot for a hug. Indali didn't care about the heat. She might never see her sister again.
Indali watched her sister go then slipped back through the crowd toward the ship. If that man was a slaver, he would be leaving very soon. Slavers couldn't risk staying on one planet long enough to get caught.
The gangplank was still down. Indali crept towards the door and tried the handle. Someone had left it unlocked. She opened it a crack, took one last glance around the bustling city that was her home, and slipped into the unknown darkness.
Compared to the warmth and life of the city, the inside of the ship felt cold and dead. Indali felt cold and dead. She had never left her family for more than a day. She found a corner to curl up in, behind a stack of wooden crates that smelled like moist dirt, and let the tears slip through the dust on her cheeks until her eyelids sank shut and she blocked out the world.